Sunday, March 10, 2013

New Creation -- A Sermon for Lent (4c)

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What if you could live your life over again?   Wouldn’t it be great to fix all your mistakes and repair the broken relationships?   Of course time travel is nothing more than a science fiction dream, so this doesn’t seem possible.  And yet, St. Paul writes that in Christ all things can become new.   Or, as Brian Wren’s hymn puts it: 

 “This is a Day of New Beginnings; time to remember and move one, time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.”

Many of us have a favorite passage of scripture, and this is one of mine.  I’ve turned to it time and again for guidance and assurance. I’ve preached from this passage several times before, because it’s a wonderful summary of the gospel message.  It also defines our role in the work of God.      

Another reason why I find this passage to be so powerful is that it speaks of new beginnings, of second chances, of new opportunities.  Although I’m a historian, and love to study the past, we can’t live in the past.  The roots of our faith are found in the past.  After all we read from a book that in its newest parts is nearly two thousand years old, including this particular passage.  Our faith is rooted in events that took place long ago, but we won’t find God by going back to the past.  This is because God is a God of new beginnings.  God is the one who inaugurates the New Creation, the God who makes a new covenant written on the heart rather than stone tablets. 

Paul invites us to embrace the New Creation, but letting go of the past isn’t easy.  To be honest, the past continues to haunt many of us.  Maybe it’s a parent who told you that you wouldn’t amount to much.  Or it’s a broken friendship or a job that was lost.  These things gnaw at us.  But there is good news.  God has promised to heal this brokenness – if only we’ll let the Spirit move in our lives.

So, how do we enter this new creation of God?  

Perhaps the starting point is the way we look at things.  Do you look at things from a “human point of view?”   Or, better yet, do you look at things “according to the flesh?”  That might be a better translation of the Greek words kata sarka.  

Paul says he once looked at life “according to the flesh.”  In fact, he once looked at Jesus this way.   Now, what does it mean to view things “according to the flesh?”  After all, don’t we all live in flesh?  

The answer to this question can be found in the way Paul uses the word “flesh.” He doesn’t use it the same way we do.  He doesn’t have bodies in mind.  No, this flesh Paul speaks of is a power that is completely opposed to the Holy Spirit.  As Paul writes to the Romans:  
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8:6-7).  
Paul was once caught up in this way of hostility, but now he lives according to the Spirit.  

This change occurs when we allow God’s work of reconciliation in Christ to heal our brokenness.  When the relationship with God is healed, then we’ll find that our relationships with our neighbors are healed as well.  That’s why the command to love God is paired with the command to love our neighbors – they go together.  They’re the evidence of the new creation.  

We see this reality played out in Scripture.  It begins in Genesis 3 with the breaking of the relationship between God and humanity.  It continues on in broken relationships within the human family.  Remember the stories of  Cain and Abel, Hagar and Sarah, Jacob and Esau.  These stories remind us that when our relationship with God is damaged, other relationships suffer as well.   But then there’s the good news – God is in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.  God has taken the first step in reversing this brokenness.  This is the story of the incarnation.  Remember what John writes – God loved the world enough to send the son into the world, so that the world might experience salvation.  That is – healing.  It starts with God and the reaches beyond to the rest of humanity and the rest of creation. 

We can all tell reconciliation stories about broken relationships that have been restored.  I know of one story unfolding right now – the story of a broken relationship that is being healed by the gracious power of God.  I’d love to share the story, but I need to keep confidence.  Still, it is wonderful to witness the handiwork of God in our midst – as relationships between parents and children, siblings, friends, church members are knit and sewn back together.  These are signs of the New Creation in Christ.   
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most powerful reconciliation stories in the Bible.   You know the story of a son who demands his portion of the inheritance so he can go off and enjoy the “good life.”   The father complies, and the son heads off to a far away land.  Unfortunately for this younger son of the father, the funds dry up rather quickly, ending all the fun.  

After all the money was gone, he found himself unemployed and homeless, and so he took a job slopping hogs.  This was, for a Jew, the most humiliating of life experiences.  But things got worse – he began to envy the hogs, who ate better than him.   Having hit bottom, he remembers that his father treated his servants much better than this employer, so he decides to return home.  He doesn’t expect to be welcomed back into the family, but at least he could get a job.  He memorizes a speech in which he apologizes and asks forgiveness and a job.  It’s rather humiliating to return home in this fashion, but he doesn’t have any choice.  

What the younger son doesn’t realize is that his father had been searching the horizon for this lost son, ever since the son departed.  When the father spots the son on the far horizon, he begins to run toward the son.  When they come together, the father stops the son before he can deliver the speech and calls for his robe and his ring.  He places the robe and the ring on his son, welcoming him back into the family.  This is more than the son could have ever expected, but that’s not the end of the story.  The father also orders that the fatted calf be slaughtered so they can have a feast to honor the son’s return.   

Of course, not everyone is happy.  The older brother is incensed.  He’s stayed faithful from day one.  He doesn’t appreciate the welcome being offered his rather disreputable brother.   After all, he’s the faithful one.  He’s gone to Sunday School all his life.  He even has perfect attendance awards to prove it.  He’s sung in the choir and even won the prizes for  memorizing Bible verses.  Yes, he’s been faithful, but no one ever honored him for his faithfulness.  

When he goes to complain to his father, the father reminds the older son that he’s grateful for the faithfulness of the older son.  But, this other son was lost and now he’s been found.  You have to celebrate something like this.  

We get to celebrate and we get to tell the story to our neighbors.  To each of us God has entrusted the ministry of reconciliation.  We’re ambassadors of this new creation.  We get to join with God in this work of setting right broken relationships, even as God has healed our own relationships with God and with our neighbors.  

This work of God takes many forms.  Whatever form it takes, it is an expression of God’s love for the world.  We get to share in this new vision for life.  It’s a vision that’s open, welcoming, hospitable.  It’s a vision that we get to take out into the world, which means it’s a missional vision.  It’s a vision that we see embodied in Jesus, who is the revelation of God in human form.  Because of this, we can become the righteousness of God. 

When this happens, the way of the flesh gives way to the way of the Spirit.  What is old and broken gives way to what is new and whole – in Christ.       

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 10, 2013
4th Sunday of Lent

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